Tag: feasts

Guinness against gnosticism

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St Patrick’s Day fell yesterday, as it often does, during Lent. This coming together of a festival not known for quiet celebration and a penitential season has been the cause of some anxiety. Is  it really the done thing to be so baccanalian during a time of reflection, some ask? The US bishops were divided over relaxing the Friday abstinence rules.

This all strikes me as very strange. There is something profoundly right about Lenten observance being put on hold by feasts (as, of course, it is every Sunday during Lent). The Christian understanding of the world is not one where happiness and sorrow, good and bad, feast and fast, are to be kept in balance, as though if we don’t have a thoroughly downbeat and uninterrupted Lent we risk upsetting the tuning of the cosmos. Even our most unsettling periods of self-examination take place in the light of the empty tomb; even our mourning takes place in the knowledge of Christ’s victory. It is as thought there is a happiness always just beneath the surface, bubbling up constantly and pressing to burst through. The irruption of feasts into fast times enact this liturgically. They remind us of the important truth that, as Barth put a related point, “the first and last word is Yes and not No”.

St Joseph’s day on Monday provides another occasion to recognise this. Now, this won’t be greeted with nearly as much controversy as was St Patrick. There are good reasons for that; St Joseph is a solemnity of the universal Church. But there are also bad reasons, namely a disdain for the way St Patrick’s day is celebrated in many places. To be frank, there’s quite a bit of class and ethnic based sneering in the background, and a nonsensical concern about the ‘Christian roots’ of the feast being lost (we hear this a lot about Christmas as well, of course: would it be better then if people didn’t celebrate at all? Doesn’t the occasion for celebration always pose the possibility of a question about its reason? And isn’t natural human joy an intrinsic good?): but at heart it is the beer-drenched, riotousness of the festivities that worry people.  We are, I assume, to suppose that the wedding at Cana presented in John’s gospel was a quiet affair at which people politely shared family news and played parlour games. All I can say here is that a good party and a good beer are excellent, and soundly Catholic, responses to any suggestion that the world is evil or that fun is to be regarded with suspicion. In a culture where the allotted role of the religious is as prudes, we should bear that in mind.

Dwelling with the Darkness : On behalf of Halloween

It is Halloween. Have a good one.

Oddly enough, given the amount of carnage and suffering blighting our planet, not a few Christians devote a considerable amount of time and energy to warning people of the dangers of today’s festivities. Starting in the pressure cooker that is North American fundamentalism, concerns about Halloween have filtered into Protestant churches in this country, and now quite a few Catholics articulate them. The impression of Christians as miserable killjoys who like nothing better than stopping children having a party is not dented by this phenomenon. Nor does the somewhat sectarian proposal that distinctively ‘Christian’ parties, where children are kept free from the risk of the occult and encouraged to celebrate the saints appeal to me. Human joy is already good, a gift of creation. We don’t need to be suspicious of any party which doesn’t have crosses emblazoned on it; the baptised are not called to emulate the Flanders family.

Some of the sillier reasons for worrying about Halloween can be dispensed swiftly. It undoubtedly has pagan origins, along with pretty much every significant Christian feast. Doesn’t this make it problematic? Sed contra: as Chesterton writes ‘..it is only Christian men, guard heathen things’. Grace completes nature, it does not destroy it. The gospel finds new meanings in the tales and traditions of ages past.

If the anti-Halloween enthusiasts don’t have enough time for non-Christian religions in one sense, they have altogether too much in another. For there is something distinctively Manichean about the fear of the occult that lurks behind many of their concerns. We encounter here a worldview populated by devils and demons, but stripped of the saints by whose intercessory powers Christians of earlier ages reassured themselves of victory over the latter. It is though the universe existed in some finally balanced detente between good and evil, with over-enthusiastic apple-bobbing risking tipping the scales and unleashing the hordes of hell. Now, some positions don’t deserve theological engagement, and the view that some five-year old who dons a witch’s mask is in profound danger of demonic possession is frankly absurd and tells us about nothing more than the psychology of its proponents. The product of the disturbed and disturbing culture wars of north America, it is shot through with a misdirected anxiety. As such it stands in need of redemption; it needs to hear the words ‘do not be afraid’.

That, of course, is the first point to be made about the value of Halloween: there’s a good amount of poking fun at evil in it. Devils and demons are risible, objects of fun – as they were for many medieval artists (the neo-Manicheanism of much contemporary Christianity shows in that this fun-poking is taken to be dangerous). For the Christian story, the first thing to be said about evil is that it is defeated. Whatever else we go on to say that must remain the dominant theme. The victory of the empty tomb sounds the death knell for all that hurts or destroys; the destiny of the world is not an open question. This being the case, a party at the expense of evil is no bad thing.

However, whilst defeated, evil persists. Confident of the victory of Christ, Paul still wrote of the creation ‘groaning in travail’. Hollow triumphalism meets its answer in reality. Children starve, wars are fought, people sleep and die homeless and alone on the streets. Our lives are punctuated by broken dreams, false starts, failed relationships and unhealed memories. Illness and sadness run through them like a thread, only for them to end in death, and the loss it brings with it. No approach to life which doesn’t face this head on deserves a hearing from humankind. Glib fixed-grin Christianity would receive its condemnation here if it hadn’t already done so in Gethsemane. We have to dwell with the darkness, to acknowledge its persistence, even to give it its due, in order to be adequately human. Halloween does this, and for this reason it is valuable. For sure, it does so in the context of a celebration and as such is shot through with a tension. But that tension is a tension that Christianity knows well. Many of us will sing tomorrow:

There dawns no Sabbath, no Sabbath is o’er,
Those Sabbath keepers have one evermore;
One and unending is that triumph song
Which to the angels and us shall belong.

Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh;
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

That, then, is Halloween. A reminder of our exile, looking forward (it is the eve of All Saints after all) to its end. For now we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

“Love bade me welcome”

He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”

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It’s been a funny day. A good day, but a painful one, involving working through some stuff and facing up to something that I don’t want to talk about in a public forum. My reason for mentioning this at all is that I went to communion this evening with a keen sense of need, of brokenness and failure, and of the sheer ambiguity of life; and receiving holy communion made sense. By this I mean the sacrament made sense to me; part of what we mean by calling the eucharist a sacrament is that it always makes sense, it always communicates the reality it signifies, quite regardless of our thoughts or feelings about it.

This in itself is something I find very helpful. At a time when there’s a widespread tendency to think about religion in experiential terms, the Church’s calm insistence that the eucharist is not a means to get the warm fuzzies, and that these in turn are not a prerequisite for reception, is something I – as someone not prone to bouts of religious enthusiasm – find a relief. But it is interesting to me that today, of all days, Corpus Christi (in England and Wales at least*), the act of reception spoke to me.

It was, I think, that this meal, given by a frightened man at a time of fracture, betrayal, and uncertainty, with tension and provisionality at its heart, not only reflected back at me my own situation, but it also communicated God’s solidarity with our situation, both messed up and wonderful as it is. Yet that solidarity is transformative, Christ doesn’t meet us where we are at solely to be with us amidst the mess, but to point forward beyond it all, and to strengthen us to journey through it.

This might seem a peculiar way for a Catholic to talk about encountering the eucharist. Isn’t the point of our eucharistic faith that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, and once we’ve acknowledged that, doesn’t the rest of it fade away into insignificance? Well, it depends what you mean. The presence of Christ in the eucharist is absolutely central to our faith and practice, yes. But our faith is that Christ is present under the signs of bread and wine. We need both aspects of the eucharistic faith – sign and reality – they stand or fall together. Signification is not in competition with the real presence, as though each were aspects of the eucharist making opposite demands on our fragile attention, it is the vehicle of Christ’s presence with us. It is through the signs that Christ is truly present. In one of his hymns for today’s feast, St Thomas writes,

Here beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.

Flesh from bread, and Blood from wine,
Yet is Christ in either sign,
All entire, confessed to be.

The eucharist is not bread and wine, it is the Body and Blood of Christ (I take this, by the way, to be a matter of faith – anyone who didn’t antecedently believe the Catholic faith – ought to think that it is bread and wine, since everything observable – chemical structure, function, and so on – suggests that it is). However, it is important that it is bread and wine that it is not. These signs are part of its meaning, they show us who Christ is, and what he does.

This signification works on so many levels. Again, I find one of St Thomas’ texts helpful:

O sacred banquet!

in which Christ is received,

the memory of his Passion is renewed,

the mind is filled with grace,

and a pledge of future glory is given to us!

 

It is not accidental that this is a meal given at a moment of betrayal, in which the Host is broken, as one of the central actions, suggesting both sharing and the broken body of an executed criminal. “The memory of his Passion is renewed”: the central means by which the Risen Christ is given to his people is not one unambiguously short through with glory, something that really would be the opium of those people, given that they continue to suffer, die, and wrestle with complicated and confused lives. Just as his body continues to bear his wounds, so his presence with us is tinged with his full identification with us in the reality of our lives, as they are. That is a genuine comfort in a way that a triumphalist rite could never be.

It’s good, and as far as I’m aware, a unique claim of Christianity, to have the comfort of a divine person who has been through it all and worse. Still, when all is said and done, knowing that one is not alone in the murk is good, but doesn’t get one out of the murk. Hence, the eucharist is also a “pledge of future glory”. It speaks of that future Kingdom in which God, who is love, will be all in all, not in spite of our lives and agency, but through their co-operation with God’s grace. In several places in scripture this Kingdom is imagined as a banquet, and so the eucharist anticipates it by presenting us with a meal. In so doing it is a sign of hope; and all of us need hope.

 

It is as a meal that the eucharist both recalls the past and prefigures the future. There’s been quite a lot of disquiet about emphasising what people insist on calling the meal aspect of the eucharist (there is no such thing, the mass is a meal: it would be nonsense to talk about the human aspect of me, I am a human being, there is no remainder). In part this is because the societies in which the loudest voices in the Church live are ones that have lost any sense of the importance of shared meals, these being indulgences that take up time which could be spent making money. But it is also because people can’t hear the mass described as a meal without hearing the word ‘just’ in front of it. And this is where I complain.

The eucharist is a meal (a banquet, a convivium, from ‘living together’). Yet to say this is not to deny for one moment that it is a sacrifice, a sacrament, or any number of other things. To say that it is a meal, in which food – Christ himself -is shared is immediately to relate it to community. Again, the word ‘community’ is one that we’ve become increasingly unable to hear without the word ‘just’, a confusion that is tied up with the wholly inadequate language of ‘horizontal’ versus ‘vertical’ understandings of liturgy (as though God were ‘up there’, or somehow competed for space with the community and its actions: a very odd idea indeed). To say the mass is concerned with community is not to say for one moment is that it is something we do by our own efforts, because it feels good, and which is thoroughly under our control and our property. The community that celebrates the mass, through its ordained priests, is a community that is given to us, born out of love. It is central to the meaning of the eucharist that we receive it as part of a communio, a worldwide fellowship. I am given grace as one of us, my life, my journey is tied up with that of the rest of the Church.

So, part of what is communicated in communion is that I am not alone. I, as one of us, am on a journey, a journey which leads from the Cross to the future banquet. On that journey, like the people in the dessert, we are fed with manna so that we can journey on. The eucharist is not given as a final goal, like all sacraments it will cease. It is provisional, given to us in our broken, confusing lives. It puts those lives into the context of a greater narrative of Love, and gives us strength to live on, for the future.”For here we have no abiding city”.

Behold the Bread of Angels,

For us pilgrims food, and token

Of the promise by Christ spoken

*I don’t like the fact that Corpus Christi is kept today, rather than the preceding Thursday, in England and Wales. But it is.